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22 October 2021updated 23 Oct 2021 12:21pm

What the race for hypersonic technology says about the US-China arms rivalry

The US still attracts the world's best minds, but China's latest test of military hardware shows it is very much in the race.

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 16 October the Financial Times reported that China had on 27 July and 13 August this year successfully tested two nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles. This development, the newspaper reported, “stunned” US officials and “caught US intelligence by surprise” (China officially denies the tests took place). The shock was compounded by the news, on 21 October, that the US had delayed its own latest hypersonic missile test due to rocket failure. Though the booster rocket in question did not involve the hypersonic technology, it added to the sense of Beijing having stolen a march on Washington in this decisive new field of competition.

The race for hypersonic missile technology is significant in itself. The US, China and Russia have in recent years all been locked in a competition to master it. The term “hypersonic” implies speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10 (so five to ten times the speed of sound). But the three traits that set such technology apart from conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are not about speed but direction: they glide, travel in a low orbit and are more manoeuvrable than ICBMs, all of which makes them harder to track and destroy. If China masters such missiles before the US, that gives it capabilities that the larger superpower lacks.

James Black, defence researcher at RAND, says: “The ability to change the flight path, potentially multiple times, rather than follow a predictable arc like a typical ballistic missile or rocket does, means you can more easily avoid detection, evade defensive counter-measures or seek to conceal your intended target until relatively close to impact.”

But the news also captures a wider and more fundamental story. For most of the Cold War, the US and USSR economies were pitted against each other in the quest to build the biggest stockpiles of broadly similar weapons. In the contest between the US and China, the goal is not to be the wealthiest, but something distinct: to have weapons of a totally superior degree of sophistication to those of one’s opponent.

Black says: “If reports of China making progress in development and testing of such systems are accurate, this could signal the latest move in an ongoing race for technological advantage between China’s People’s Liberation Army, on the one hand, and the US military and its allies, on the other.”

As Adam Tooze wrote for us in his cover feature last month: “The US was raised to the status of a hyper-power not by the genius of it soldiers, or the qualitative superiority of its weapons, but through its economic supremacy… Now, the ultimate goal of the Pentagon planners is to loosen that link between economic performance and military force. They aim to secure US military dominance even as the centrifugal effect of global economic growth reduces America’s relative weight in the world economy. Ultra-advanced technology, not GDP, will be the decisive factor.”

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The Pentagon’s assumption, as Adam puts it, is that the US – with its remarkable and unique ability to attract the world’s brightest scientists and harness their work – has a natural superiority in this new contest of brains over brawn. But there is another vision of the future, in which a ruthless China beats the US in this race.

Take 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, published in March, which imagines the US military being overwhelmed by a technologically superior China in the Pacific in the mid-2030s. What the thriller lacks in literary merit it makes up for in insight into the US elite’s darkest fears: one of its two co-authors is James Stavridis, a former US admiral and a bastion of the American military establishment. The book neatly documents that establishment’s worst nightmares.

Beijing’s hypersonic missile test is just one instance of China leading on one form of technology. There are still strong reasons to believe that the US, with its dynamic, agile society and its ability to attract and fund the world’s best minds, has the best chances in this new age of technological competition. And China has its own often-underestimated internal weaknesses, demonstrated by its current property market and energy crises, as I wrote in my column recently. Yet the news that it has beaten its US counterparts in this particular area is a sobering reminder that the race remains competitive – and for an often complacent West, perilously so. 

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